What do we make of the beheading of John the Baptist?

Sermon Given July 11, 2021

I have to admit, I’ve struggled with the gospel reading for this week. I mean, what do we make of the beheading of John the Baptist? What should we make of it? It’s a hard text for us to consider, as are all texts of violence in the Bible. These are the texts that make me pause and ask why. Why was this story written down for future generations? Why do we read such violence and what are we meant to take away from the experience?

This is one of the violent texts in the Bible where the answers come a little easier. The violence is done against a person of God, rather than the violence being done by God. Still, one has to wonder where God was in this situation. Did God want this to happen? Some might even internalize it further, asking, does God want me to suffer too? 

The complication grows as we know that not everyone suffers equally. Those with more privileges often suffer less than those with fewer privileges. Society favors certain people over others, and those who aren’t favored suffer oppression. Casting John as a white man, as he is often portrayed in popular American Christian art, gives an entirely different flavor to John’s suffering than the accurate portrayal of John as a Middle Eastern Jew in an occupied state. If he’s viewed similar to a white American man, his suffering is seen as primarily stemming from his decision to not back down and to tell it as it is. If he is a minority in an occupied state, his suffering not only comes from him telling it as it is, it comes from his refusal to show deference to those in power, treating the person who was clearly more powerful than himself, as an equal. One thing power can’t stand is when those whom society has set up to have less power demand their equality. 

 If we don’t accurately see John and Herod for who they were, if we don’t see the causal roots of this suffering, we don’t see where we can learn from the suffering. All suffering is contextual and the response to suffering is to dig up the roots. God doesn’t create suffering, but God can use the experiences of suffering to teach us how to better love God, our neighbors, and ourselves. That’s what redemptive suffering means. It’s not suffering so God can love us better. It’s learning from those who voluntarily suffer so we can better follow the greatest commandment. It isn’t staying in abuse, it is a statement of equality, a refusal to be placed in a lesser role, even though society may want to place you there. Redemption comes when the roots are exposed and the tree of suffering and oppression dies within ourselves and the world.

The roots of John’s suffering come from a deep place of insecurity and lust within Herod Antipas. Despite the title Mark gives Herod in the Bible, Herod was not a king, he just really wanted to be one. In fact, I think Mark called him a king to poke fun at Herod’s lust for the title, desires that were never fulfilled, but rather used against him by his own nephew, who claimed that Herod was plotting against the emperor, leading to Herod’s exile in the year 39. Herod Antipas was a tetrarch. He was in charge of a quarter of the land that his father, Herod the Great, had ruled, with limited powers given to him by Rome. His powers and area of authority were a fraction of his father’s. He felt small compared to Herod the Great. He felt diminished. He cut down others in an effort to gain more. 

Herod Antipas also didn’t just marry Herodias because he lusted after his brother’s wife. Herod’s wife before her was from a different kingdom and culture. While that marriage provided a good relationship between the two countries, it didn’t help Herod’s credibility within the area he controlled. He wanted a Jewish wife to help bolster his credibility, and his brother had just that. So he took what his brother had. Marrying Herodias wasn’t just about a beautiful woman, it was a power grab. 

So John called him out, not just for taking his living brother’s wife, but for his hunger for more power than he actually had, and that really made Herodias mad. She wanted power just as badly as Herod did and she thought he could provide her with more than her former husband. So hearing John cut Herod down to size must have irked her to no end. The desire for more power, more control, was insatiable with these two and bonded them together. 

One of the interesting things about Mark’s portrayal of Herod is that he subtly reduces Herod’s power all while using the title Herod so desperately wanted, King. John’s beheading all happens not because Herod sensed a threat, but because of the anger of Herodias, Herod’s wife. Herod himself is indifferent to John. Herod puts John in prison because Herodias wanted him to. He doesn’t necessarily have anything against John, he just wants to keep her happy. Herod keeps John safe in prison for a while because he knows that John is a holy person. Even though Herod doesn’t understand John’s message, he likes having John as a conversation partner. There’s an inkling that if Herod weren’t so power hungry and so dense, he may have eventually joined John’s movement. But all that is stripped away when Herodias’ daughter dances for Herod at his birthday party. Her mother pulls the strings and gets John’s head on a platter. Herodias is the one in power, the one with the ultimate say in this matter. In a sexist and patriarchal world, this is a huge slap in the face to Herod. Mark’s saying, “Here’s this guy who wanted to be king, but he didn’t even have power in the area he ruled. His wife, whom he married against biblical regulations, had the real power, not him.”

But still, John’s suffering came with Herod’s final say and blessing. Sometimes indifference can be just as bad or even worse than active hostility. Because who got appeased in this situation? The person who already had more power. Herod could have stood with John, could have blessed his movement. He certainly didn’t hate what John was saying and he even knew that John’s message was holy, but Herodias and the power that relationship provided was more important to him. Herod thought it was sad, but he still sent a soldier to kill John. And how often do those with power today look at situations with indifference, following paths that benefit the powerful? And how many suffer because those who can make a real difference don’t make the changes needed to end their plight? They may be sympathetic, but they aren’t going to change their hearts and lives in order to provide for those who are suffering. Herods are all around us to this very day. The indifference of the powerful always benefits those in power. It never helps those who call us to repentance today. 

What is needed are those who, like John the Baptist, are willing to call out the powerful, who commit themselves to treating the powerful as equals. Their lives and their work highlight the suffering in this world and declare that we can do better, that we are able to provide enough for all. Their lives and legacies lead us forward. But their work comes at great risk. One needs only to think of the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement to recognize that when you speak truth to power, power fights back. They work to build themselves up and appease the oppressed without creating lasting change.  They do things like twist Martin Luther King Jr. into a superhero, someone who won an everlasting victory after winning battles with a few evil villains, ignoring that the movement he stepped into is larger than him and survives to this day. He may have been sanitized for a white audience, but those who live in his legacy still march on, not only for Black liberation, but for his last great cause, the Poor People’s Campaign, which seeks to alleviate poverty through legislation and challenging the practices of big business. 

Just like Martin stepped into a movement that was always larger than him and endured long after him, John stepped into a movement too. He fit into a line of prophets that had been calling out for generations, and had disciples who spread out across the Roman Empire, calling for change of hearts and lives. The John Movement was big and was eventually absorbed into the Jesus Movement, which is why we still talk about him and read about him in our Bibles. And if Herod was afraid of John upsetting his power, John had nothing on Jesus. Herod thought Jesus might be John back from the dead, but really John was just a foretaste of the Jesus Movement and the power of what Jesus is able to do. John baptized with water, Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit. We have power that goes beyond what any human ruler could do, because it is the power of God. 

But today, I worry that these movements, this upset of powers, this challenging of the way things are, is too sanitized in many Christian communities. The alignment of Christianity with nations is something that goes back millenia, stretching back to Constantine’s conversion and the subsequent edict that all Romans were to be Christians in the fourth century. This move always threatened Christianity, moving us dangerously close to a completely spiritualized kind of piety, a way of being that refuses to challenge the status quo, but rather focuses on living a moral and virtuous life, allowing those with more power to rule without question. There’s certainly nothing wrong with being moral and virtuous, but when you’re taught that it’s appropriate to be indifferent to suffering, then Jesus becomes a superhero rather than the Son of God, someone who won against some villains rather than someone who stands with us against injustice to this day.This teaching of indifference is how good Christians have been able to commit atrocities. Nice, decent people were taught to endorse systemic violence against others, often with powerful leaders leading the charge in order to gain more power for themselves. For generations people were taught this piety rather than a change of heart and life that could move mountains, a change of heart that saw other lives as full and equal to the lives of those in power.  Redemptive suffering in this case is not the suffering of millions like those who were given small pox laden blankets or bought and sold like animals.  That’s immoral anguish. Redemptive suffering is those who fought the system, who refused to let this institution stand, who paid dearly for their refusal to categorize themselves or others as more or less worthy based on the color of their skin. These are people whose lives we can learn from today. They challenged the system and were often not accepted and sometimes killed for their convictions, but they fell into a movement that lives to this day. 

American Christianity today is still struggling with this kind of piety and racism, still trying to figure out how it fits within national discourse. Some idolize the government. Some demonize it. But there is another way, a way of cutting it down to size, and recognizing it for what it is, a tool for binding society together.  It is something we have developed to order to our shared lives and build rules to live by. Governments aren’t God. Governments are not God’s Kingdom. They are human structures with flaws and foibles, systems that are sometimes great and sometimes terrible. We are not called to blindly endorse our government, nor are we called to demonize it. We’re called to be like John, being unafraid to treat those in power as equals, even if it gets us in trouble, to challenge our government to be more in line with Kingdom values, because no government is entirely in line with God’s Kingdom, including our own.

God’s Kingdom will always challenge us, it is bigger than any one governmental system or ideology. It has been a movement propelling us forward for thousands of years, inviting us to continually dream, challenge, and share life together in meaningful ways, ways that uphold the oppressed and downtrodden, ways that even invite some of us into redemptive suffering, voluntary suffering for the greatest commandment, pointing to the way of love over and above the way of selfish desire and thirst for power. If we can tap into the Kingdom, then not even Herodias’ anger or Herod’s indifference can stop us. Roots of injustice, once exposed and left out for all to see, will eventually break down and crumble if we don’t allow them to be covered back up. Slowly and surely, God’s way of love will bring a just and loving world on earth as it is in heaven.

As I consider again why we have tales of violence like this in the Bible, I think part of the reason is that we not only need to learn from redemptive suffering, but we need to grapple with the violence that surrounds us in our own lives, asking what is good and fair and just. These texts help us experience all our emotions, all our anger at injustice and help us to ask, “Where do I find God in all of this? What values do I need to embrace and uphold to help us out of this mess?” Because if we can find our values when faced with the violence within the Bible, we can find our values in the violence we face in daily life. We can be more in tune, seeing the suffering around us that we can too often ignore and seeking liberation for the oppressed. May we dream of and embrace God’s Kingdom, a place of true equality for all. Amen.